Which is an evil path from which man should distance himself..? Rabbi Shimon said: He who borrows and does not repay. For one who borrows from man is as one who borrows from the Almighty.

Ethics of the Fathers, 2:10


We find the same sentiment expressed in the fifth chapter of Leviticus, where the Torah discusses some of the laws which pertain to one who has violated the integrity of his fellow's property:

G‑d spoke to Moses: ``If a person shall sin and commit a betrayal against G‑d, and lie to his fellow concerning an article left for safekeeping, a business venture, a robbery, a withholding of payment, or the finding of a lost object...

Should he sin and be guilty, he must return the theft that he has stolen...

He shall pay back the principal, and shall add its fifth part to it, and give it whom he is owing... And he shall bring his guilt-offering to G‑d...''

Talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva points out the amazing implications of G‑d's opening words. ``Why does the Torah consider him to have `committed a betrayal against G‑d'?,'' asks Rabbi Akivah. ``Because in defrauding his fellow, he is also defrauding the Third Party to their dealings.''

Three Owners

How is the offender also defrauding G‑d? On the most basic level, we can say that in addition to depriving his fellow of what is rightfully his he is also offending the Supernal Author of the command ``You shall not steal.'' Another explanation (this one offered by Rabbi Akivah himself) is that although not a single earthly soul may be aware of what really happened, the Almighty is the omnipresent witness to all that transpires. So in addition to lying to his fellow, he is brazenly denying the all-knowing ``Third Party to their dealings.''

However, the term ``Third Party to their dealings'' implies more than a witness to and an authority over their transaction. It seems to indicate a common denominator between the three, a three-sided partnership of sorts.

Indeed, such is the case. The three ``parties'' - the owner, the offender and G‑d - share a common relationship to the disputed object: each is in fact its ``owner.''

By force of Torah law, the original holder of the object is its “owner.”

The thief is also exercising a logistical, if not rightful, ``ownership'' over it. (In addition to the fact that he has appropriated the benefits of ownership ((use of the object etc.)) for himself, there is also a legal element to his ``ownership'': he is unconditionally responsible for it. For example, if the stolen object is destroyed by an unpreventable act of G‑d—in the which case a bailee would not be responsible—the thief must repay the owner; since he has taken it as his own, he cannot claim, as can a bailee, ``your object is no longer in existence.'')

Finally, the Creator is the object's owner in the ultimate sense of the word. In the words of the psalmist, ``The world, and all that fills it, is G‑d's.''

So the thief, in addition to wronging his fellow, has most literally ``committed a betrayal against G‑d'': he has also violated the property rights of the Supreme Owner of all.

Ownership by Bequest

Conceivably, the thief may argue: ``G‑d's ownership of the world transcends whatever rights my fellow or myself may claim. No matter who exercises physical control over the object, it is still in the possession of the Almighty. You may perhaps accuse me of transgressing a commandment of G‑d's, or even of misusing His property, but how can you say that I have violated His ownership? Since `The world, and all that fills it, is G‑d's,' can one remove something from His premises? How can one steal from G‑d?''

And yet, if we refer to another teaching of Rabbi Akiva's, we find that G‑d's ``ownership'' of the world is indeed violated when man encroaches upon the domain of his fellow human being. Regarding the verse, ``The world, and all that fills it, is G‑d's,'' the Talmud quotes Rabbi Akiva's definition of G‑d' ownership: ``He acquired and bequeathed His world.'' In essence, Rabbi Akiva is saying that G‑d's possession of the world is for the sole purpose of granting pedestrian ownership to human beings!

Another Talmudic sage put it this way: ``Everything was created to serve me, and I was created to serve my Creator.'' G‑d created the material resources of our world so that man may utilize them to serve Him---this is why He acquired a world, this is why He continually provides it with being and life. And in order for man to be able to make use of these resources in accordance with the Divine plan, each man's rights over his ``share of creation'' must be defined and safeguarded. So G‑d's ``bequest of His world'' to man is the very essence of His relationship to it. This is the raison d'etre His choice to create and own the universe.

Thus the Torah writes: ``If a person shall sin and commit a betrayal against G‑d by lying to his fellow.'' If you deceive your fellow, you are also betraying the ``Third Partner,'' depriving Him of His ownership as He Himself defines it.

Choice and Responsibility

After establishing that to violate another's property is to ``commit a betrayal against G‑d,'' the Divine Legislator proceeds to detail some of the penalties to be exacted from who is found guilty of ``lying to his fellow concerning an article left for safekeeping, a business venture, a robbery, a withholding of payment, or the finding of a lost object.''

First of all, he must return the object or sum he has wrongfully withheld. In the case that he denies the charge under oath and is subsequently convicted by the testimony of witnesses, he must pay an additional one-fifth of its value to the owner and bring a ``guilt offering'' (korban asham) to atone for his transgression.

This underscores the other side of the coin. For one who has committed a crime against his fellow may tend to go to the other extreme, categorizing his deed as ``something between myself and my G‑d'' and rationalizing away his guilt and his duty toward his victim.

Indeed, this is the proper perspective for the victim to assume. In his Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi writes:

``Our sages have said: `He who gets angry, it is as if he has worshipped idols.' Why? Because at the time of his anger, faith has departed from him. Were he to truly believe that what has happened to him is of G‑d's doing, he would not become angry at all. For although a human being, possessing free choice, is cursing him, or hitting him, or causing damage to his property, and is therefore liable before a human court and before the Heavenly court for the wickedness of his choice - nevertheless, as far as he, the victim, is concerned, this has already been decreed upon him from heaven, and `G‑d has many agents to do his bidding.' Furthermore, even at the very moment he hits or curses him, he [the perpetrator] is animated by the Divine life-force which perpetually grants him vitality and being...''

With this approach, Rabbi Schneur Zalman resolves an apparent contradiction between two basic tenets of the Jewish faith: (a) the exclusivity of G‑d's omnipotent power as the one and only determining force in all of existence; and (b) man's freedom to choose between good and evil and his complete responsibility for his actions.

If Joe chooses to strike Moe, it is a choice that Joe has freely made, and which is not influenced by any factor outside of his own self. Joe is thus solely responsible for his choice. But the fact that Moe has been hurt is not the result of Joe's choice - to believe so would be to believe in ``another G‑d,'' another determining factor to what transpires in the universe. The victim has only one place to look for the responsible party. Had his assailant not made his evil choice, the preordained blow would have been caused by someone or something else. In other words, his anger toward the one who wronged him is simply misdirected.

This is the proper attitude for the victim to take. But how is the perpetrator to view the damage inflicted upon the victim? Is he to see his crime only as a moral issue between himself and G‑d?

But the very same section of Torah which teaches us that ``if a person shall sin'' against his fellow he has ``committed a betrayal against G‑d,'' also indicates he is responsible to his victim. This is derived from the fact that, in certain cases, he is sentenced to pay additional compensation to his victim, amounting to 1/5th of the sum (or object value) in question. This, our sages explain, is to compensate for the time in which the victim was deprived of his property.

That he must pay back the principal itself can be understood also in the context of a total disconnection between the two litigants: although the guilty party is guilty only towards G‑d, the money is rightfully the victim's. The fact that it was preordained that the victim is to suffer a loss does not necessarily mean that it was to be a permanent loss; as soon as we find out that a wrong has been committed, the court must remedy it, restoring the property to its rightful owner. But when the Torah instructs the guilty party to pay the extra fifth, and to pay it not (only) as a fine and punishment but as compensation to the victim for his temporary loss---here we find a direct responsibility on the part of the ``wrong-chooser'' towards the one affected by his evil choice.

This also explains the otherwise difficult wording of the verse, ``He shall pay back the principal, and shall add its fifth part to it, and give it whom he is owing.'' In his commentary on the verse, Rashi questions the need for the extra words ``and give it whom he is owing'': would it not suffice to say ``He shall pay back the principal, and shall add its fifth part to it''? Rashi explains that this comes to inform us that the thief ``must give it to the one whose money it is.''

In other words, had not the Torah added these words, I would not have known to whom the added fifth must be given! I would have said: ``he shall pay back the principal''---that's clear, after all, the money is rightfully the victim's. But as far as the added fifth is concerned, that's obviously a punishment for his crime---a crime against He who proclaimed ``You shall not steal.'' Perhaps he should give it to charity or something. The victim? The victim has nothing to do with any of this!

So the Torah must explicitly tell us that the fine is meant as compensation to the victim. True, the perpetrator's evil choice was not the cause of the victim's loss. Nonetheless, the Torah has made him responsible for it, in much the same way it has told him to return the principal. In addition to redressing his moral wrong towards his Creator, it is incumbent upon him to feel guilt and responsibility also towards his fellow; to appease and compensate him for his suffering as if he had not merely done him but also the caused him wrong.